A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
BISHKEK – People in Kyrgyzstan have begun voting on a new constitution aimed at reducing presidential powers and paving the way for the country to become the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, a region known for its autocratic presidents. Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otunbaeva cast her ballot this morning in Osh, a southern city partially ruined in bloody ethnic violence this month that killed at least 275 people and forced another estimated 400,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, from their homes in Osh and neighboring Jalal-Abad provinces. Voters are being asked in a referendum whether they approve the new constitution. The referendum will also give legitimacy to Otunbaeva's government, which came to power in the aftermath of a popular uprising that overthrew Kurmanbek Bakiev from the presidency in April.If the referendum passes, it would allow the interim government to conduct parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Speaking after casting her vote at a polling station inside a university building in Osh, Otunbaeva said the whole international community was watching the situation in Kyrgyzstan and that many countries support the interim government's efforts to stabilize the southern provinces. She also said the vote would show the country's unity."We need the referendum to put us on a legal footing, this will be the positive outcome of the referendum. People are voting for stability, for a legitimate government," Otunbaeva said.Tight SecurityAccording to Kyrgyz officials some 27 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots before noon local time. At around 30 percent, the turnout was highest in Bishkek and northern provinces. Observers say turnout is lowest in the south. Officials are taking mobile voting stations into some villages.Deputy leader of the interim government Almazbek Atambaev tells RFE/RL that about two percent of the electorate had turned out by 9:00 a.m. local time in the hardest-hit region of Osh.The referendum is taking place amid tight security. The Interior Ministry says it has stationed nearly 8,000 police officers, with some 12,000 volunteers mobilized to help the police. The army has also been put on standby.Critics say the referendum should not have been carried out so soon after this month's violence. But Atambaev said putting off the vote would have handed victory to those who the interim authorities say provoked the violence to exploit problems that have lasted for the past two decades. "Kyrgyzstan's main problem is poverty. Because if someone's poor, he starts to blame neighbors, other people who speak different languages or follow different faiths. The problem is that for the past 20 years, the country worked to support whichever family was in power," Atambaev said.'Stability And A New Life'On the streets of the capital, Bishkek, our correspondent spoke to many people who said they would vote today. At a voting station in the city center, there appeared to be a small but steady turnout. After casting her ballot in central Bishkek, Rizbe Butova said she hoped the government would be able to establish real democracy in Kyrgyzstan. "I'm voting for stability and a new life," Butova said.She compared this month's violence in Kyrgyzstan to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, adding that most people want to step away from the brink of ethnic conflict.Another voter, Burul Turdalievna, said she believed the population would see the referendum as legitimate. "The government will get through this. These are hard times, but it will get easier," Turdalievna said.A minimum turnout threshold has been scrapped by authorities, so the vote will be deemed legitimate regardless what percentage of the voters casts their ballots. Initial results are expected on June 28.Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Gregory Feifer reported and wrote from Bishkek. Farangis Najibullah reported and wrote from Prague.